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Referee Nigel Owens hits out at Israel Folau's 'hurtful' comments

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Cheika won't pick Folau for World Cup (0:50)

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika discusses Israel Folau's fate for the Rugby World Cup. (0:50)

Leading Test rugby referee Nigel Owens has described Israel Folau's religious views as narrow minded and potentially "very, very hurtful" to a lot of people.

Owens, who is gay, said high-profile players such as under-fire Wallabies star Folau need to understand the influence they have over young, vulnerable people in particular.

In an interview with British radio station talkSPORT, the Welshman was highly critical of Folau reasserting his homophobic beliefs in social media posts last week.

"There are some things in life that you can choose and your sexuality is not one of them," Owens said. "I respect people who are brought up with religious beliefs, and some who are entrenched and will follow those religious beliefs, no matter how narrow minded they may be to the rest of us.

"Although everyone has the right to have his view, you then have to understand the consequences when you express the view that can be very, very hurtful to a lot of people."

World-class fullback Folau on Wednesday responded to Rugby Australia's breach notice, opting for a Code of Conduct hearing instead of contract termination.

Owens said he wouldn't officiate Folau any differently on the field if he does remain in the sport. The same would apply to England No.8 Billy Vunipola, who has reprimanded by the Rugby Football Union for publicly supporting Folau's views.

"I've refereed those players in the past and they've treated me with respect," Owens said. "I don't judge people, I have a job to do on the field and I will just referee what's in front of me.

"I think it's hugely important that rugby maintains that value and ethos of respect."